James Hill's Weekly, 3/13/98

By Srdja Trifkovic

Srdja Trifkovic is executive director of the Lord Byron Foundation for Balkan Studies

We've seen this all before

Attacks by armed Albanian separatists on policemen in the Serbian province of Kosovo, a regular feature of daily life in that unhappy corner of the Balkans for years, escalated recently to the point where the regime of Slobodan Milosevic felt compelled to respond with a show of force. This was unsurprisingly met with the familiar media barrage against the cruelty of "the Serbs" and bellicose statements by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who pushed through the Contact Group for Former Yugoslavia this week new sanctions against Federal Yugoslavia.

America's current strategy is to force Mr. Milosevic into elevating Kosovo to the status of a constituent federal republic in the rump Yugoslavia, which consists of Serbia and Montenegro. The province would thus be detached from Serbia, of which it is the oldest and emotionally most treasured part: Serbian medieval kings have all left magnificent monasteries and castles as evidence that this was indeed the cradle not only of the Serbian state, but also of its neo-Byzantine culture.

This is the untold reason for the insistence of the State Department that the problem of Kosovo be resolved "within Yugoslavia," with no mention of Serbia. The rationale is the spurious claim that, although always a part of Serbia, Kosovo was also represented at the federal level under Tito's Communist constitution of 1974. Why a dead Red dictator's arrangements -- never freely negotiated, or voted upon by the people concerned -- should be accepted as inviolable principles a quarter of a century later, is left unexplained.

Should Kosovo become a federal republic, the Croatian/Bosnian scenario for secession would be duly applied: the assembly in Pristina will call a referendum on independence, with the result a foregone conclusion. The proceedings will be eagerly ratified by the assorted worthies from "The International Community," and presto! -- another slice will be cut from the Serbian salami, with the fašade of legality maintained by the powers-that-be inside the Beltway. If the Serbs try to resist, they will be branded, yet again, "aggressors" against a new U.N. member. A greater Albania will come into being without a single editorial writer ever using the phrase, let alone considering its implications.

Mr. Milosevic is on board, as usual; he will agree to anything as long as his power in the remnant of Serbia is guaranteed by the United States, which it will be. In the first phase he will present defeat to his long-suffering people as a victory, because the leader of the Kosovo Albanians, Ibrahim Rugova, will temporarily muzzle his uncompromising demand for full independence in favor of the federal status within Yugoslavia. But when a few months later Mr. Rugova follows the example of Croatia's Franjo Tudjman in 1991, and Bosnia-Herzegovina's Alija Izetbegovic in 1992, Mr. Milosevic's acceptance of the fait accompli will be justified by foreign pressure. He and Ms. Albright need each other.

This apparently clever ploy made in Foggy Bottom may cause a destabilizing chain reaction throughout the Balkans. Its main victim will be the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, where the restive Albanian minority comprises a third of total population (as opposed to only one fifth in Serbia). Oddly enough, the U.S. supports Skopje's policy of centralization, and does not object to the refusal of the government of Kiro Gligorov to grant autonomous status to its Albanians. But by encouraging their cousins next door in Serbia to strive for full autonomy, and paving the way for independence, the U.S. will unleash a revolution of rising expectations among Macedonia's Albanians that will be impossible to contain.

Quite apart from practical policy considerations, U.S. encouragement of Albanian intransigence in Serbia is flawed in principle. If the Albanians are allowed full autonomy leading to secession on grounds of their numbers (90 percent in Kosovo), will the same apply if the Latinos in New Mexico or Texas eventually outnumber their Anglo neighbors and start demanding full autonomy, or even secession?

If the principle of full territorial autonomy for minorities is imposed on Serbia, will it not be demanded by the Hungarians in Romania (more numerous than Serbia's Albanians), the Russians in the Ukraine, or the Kurds in Turkey? And finally, if action by Serbian police against armed terrorists is condemned by Washington in the name of human rights and moral principles, presumably the same will be done when the next Kurdish village is razed by the Turkish army and the next Palestinian terrorist's home blown up by the Israeli Defense Force.